Friday, February 18, 2011

Yann in Rwanda (8) - Reflections of a Newbie Volunteer in Africa

The first day in the field (Tuesday Feb. 15, 2011) had its ups and downs for the water quality testing of selected water points.  Thanks to the preparation the night before (we had all the instruments calibrated and divided between the two teams).  What did not go as well, is that the survey data was supposed to be saved each time we press the “save and start new” button on the Android (cell phone), but we realized later that the data was lost (got never saved, or kept being re-written, not clear yet what the glitch was) in particular the GPS coordinates corresponding to the water quality sample sites.  Guy Beauchemin (who is military trained) had a back-up of a back-up (you know PACE: Plan, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency) and had all his coordinates handwritten in his notebook.
The Water Quality team may have been unlucky that day (because of all the extra preparation that got us back to the hotel a little before 11:00 pm), but it was worse for the survey teams given: (1) the above issue (critical for the survey teams) and (2) the fact that there was a torrential downpour that afternoon (and I mean literally sheets of water for an hour) ... The water quality teams were cozily back that afternoon in the lab for the analyses and updating results.

When leaving the US for the WFP assignment in Rwanda, I was mildly anxious (How is the assignment going to be actually performed? Will plans/equipment be reliable? How much redundancy/contingency to consider when packing? etc.) with a dash of trepidation (looking forward to experience equatorial Africa, directly helping a region of the world in dismal need of drinking water and sanitation, etc.).  Having the trip fully supported (thanks to the great generosity of family, friends, and fellow parishioners) and the fact that GCWW allowed me to be on City time meant that I could go headlong without having to worry about finances at home and be free to go headlong into the mission. 
The BlackBerry upgrade to the Global plan proved to be crucial (thanks again April!) because for the first few days, it was the ONLY means of communications back to the US (email and voice) since issues kept plaguing the WiFi internet access at the inn (and also interface issues between the internet cable connection of the Water for People-Rwanda office and my laptop had be resolved before I finally was able to post some blogs; that connection proved very slow though [certainly not DSL-grade!], so I could not upload any of the short videos on GCWW’s YouTube channel because each would take over 100 minutes …  That’s why you did not see videos of the volunteers as I was mentioning in the earlier posts.
Often this assignment gives the impression of being a drop in the ocean of water and sanitation needs for this developing country.  The capacity needs to be built, and I don’t mean system capacity, but rather population education: skills, buy-in into the necessity and benefit of public health progress, etc.  Bringing just water systems is wholly inadequate for true sustainable progress if the local population does not believe that (1) the improvement is necessary and that (2) proper administration, operation, and maintenance of the system is required for continually deriving benefits from it. 
If the benefits are not obvious to the local population (e.g., if they are not sick now, maybe because of some immunity they developed towards the pathogens), then any water improvement is not seen as necessary and they will simply end up entertaining the goodwill of NGOs (e.g., if the system breaks, they will wait until the next NGO comes along to repair it). 
The water system improvement has to last, otherwise (and I believe that has happened in a number of developing countries), when the drinking water system breaks down, the population becomes sicker: while the system was ongoing, their immune system decreased because of the improved water quality (i.e., similar to the Western world), and become more susceptible to the pathogens when the system breaks down.  Hence good intentions without a long term (sustainable) plan end up doing more damage than doing nothing …

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying your posts, Yann!
    Interesting commentary on the critical importance of maintaining water systems once the populace becomes less immune to local pathogens.

    Keep up the great work!